It’s best that I be as clear about this as I can — I want you to understand that my basic belief about the making of stories is that they pretty much make themselves. The job of the writer is to give them a place to grow (and to transcribe them, of course). Stories are relics, part of an undiscovered pre-existing world. The writer’s job is to use the tools in her or her toolbox to get as much of each one out of the ground intact as possible. Sometimes the fossil you uncover is small; a seashell. Sometimes it’s enormous, a Tyrannosaurus Rex with all those gigantic ribs and grinning teeth. - Stephen King, On Writing
In the very essence of poetry there is something indecent:
a thing is brought forth which we didn’t know we had in us…
It’s hard to guess where that pride of poets comes from,
when so often they’re put to shame by the disclosure of their frailty.
- From “Ars Poetica?” by Czeslaw Milosz
“Have you been writing lately?” I cringe a little every time I’m asked that question. There is no good answer:
Yes, I’ve been writing and no, you can’t see it; or
Yes, I have been writing but it’s all terrible; or
No, I haven’t been writing, and please please please don’t ask me why.
Writing poetry is not a pleasant process. Any writing is uncomfortable, I suppose, but there’s something uniquely dreadful about poetry. Czeslaw Milosz says a poet is a demoniac city; poems rise up like devils, unannounced, before they are exorcised by page and pen. A poet’s demons are caught, subdued, and arranged in neat stanzas for other’s perusal.
Pinning down your demons to be scrutinized like bugs under glass is a profoundly uncomfortable experience. No human is comfortable being openly frail and vulnerable in front of other people. When a poet writes, they struggle to capture the total essence of their humanity; their fear, rage, ecstasy, sadness, and joy. It is not easy to display yourself at your most human and your most vulnerable.
Yes, I have been writing lately. It is not a comforting process. No poet’s process is. Poetry is wrestling with your demons like Jacob wrestled with the angel; it’s private, it’s desperate, and, hopefully, there’s redemption at the end.
Poetry Editor Tania Runyan responds to the question: What are the challenges of writing poetry in the suburbs?
The suburbs kill individuality, don’t they? Every vinyl-sided house, tree-named cul-de-sac and video-equipped Toyota Sienna is toxic to the poet who needs a diverse urban neighborhood or fresh country air to survive. And how can a poet of faith possibly unearth the mysteries of God in this manicured nightmare? It’s almost impossible to hear the Spirit’s voice amidst all those kicked soccer balls.
I know sameness has its deficits. I’ve experienced the disorientation of walking into an out-of-town Walgreens with the same life-sized, cardboard Taylor Swift placed approximately twelve feet from the entrance, slightly to the left of the nail polish end cap. I’m far from home, but I can be anywhere. In fact, is there really such thing as home when you live in a place so much like other places? Can poems get made here, and more, can I pick up my cross?
The act of writing poetry has helped me follow Jesus in the burbs simply because poetry makes me notice. I don’t wait for inspiration to hit. If so, I’d never write because I wouldn’t have the energy to “feel” inspired. Let’s face it: nothing supernatural is going to leap out of my Caribou cup as I drive past Gurnee Mills for the fourth time in one day. But in writing, I must engage my senses with whatever seemingly dull moments my suburban life sets before me. And the life is not dull. Sure, there may be some uniformity in houses, cars, moms’ hairstyles and children’s activities, but that very external sameness is what turns me toward the inner realities of the people who live here. How do they cultivate a meaningful life amidst the suburban “rat race” (I’ve never seen rats race, by the way)—the real people, including me, who were designed to follow their creator regardless of geography? The sights and sounds of a place like Venice Beach or the Rockies would be too easy to poeticize: the self-proclaimed World’s Greatest Wine-O, the herds of moose crossing ridiculously impressionistic fields of wildflowers. But what about the man who backs out of his driveway in Lake County, Illinois, at 6:42 each morning, travel mug in hand, knot in his stomach? The man like and unlike so many others? What is the landscape of his life?
Those questions enable me to write a poem, but most of all, they help me to see my daily life through the spiritual lens. And really, the spiritual should be my vision, not just a lens. When I approach my geography not with disdain but with grace, curiosity, and the dignity of fascination, I no longer see anonymous mini-malls with interchangeable Starbucks and mattress stores but sacred places where people wrestle with each other, themselves, and sometimes God. If I dare to imagine it.
Relief contributor David Wright wrote a pantoum in honor of a certain suburban woman experiencing angst over her sofa-shopping adventures. Here we see an example of Christ infusing our blandest suburban moments. The original “postcard poem” and illustrations can be found here.
And a Woman Goes To Find a Couch
And despairs at the impossible choice
and sits on every sofa in the suburbs
and lies down in a store to rest
and falls asleep one afternoon
and dreams of every sofa in the suburbs
and sees Jesus in a blue recliner in heaven
and wakes from sleep one afternoon
and is haunted by the whole vision
and seizes at Jesus in a blue recliner in heaven
and questions the Book of Revelation
and is haunted by her holy vision
and the blue-dyed decor of our eternal home
and questions the Book, the Revelation
and despairs at God’s improbable choice
and his blue-dyed decor of our eternal home
and rises up and calls her own home blest.
Jenean McBrearty’s short story “Reliquary” appears in Relief 6.1. The story encompasses cloning, child-rearing, and the Shroud of Turin, among other things that evoke our relationship to the past and to the spirit world.
Red, white, or old and rugged, the cross is an awesome symbol of Christ’s power over darkness and death. In hoc signes vinces. In this sign, you will conquer. Constantine saw the message written on the heavens, put the cross on his shield, and the world was never the same. Dracula ignored the memo, and we know what the symbol does to him! Context is everything.
When life gets complicated, when its course runs, as it inevitably does, and it’s time to say good-bye, the things people leave behind in this world—their relics—are precious to the people they leave behind. They are personal symbols of the awesome power of life, of love, and experience, symbols that are testaments to God having let us be. To breathe and cry and laugh, and do all sorts of amazing things.
I’ve always been fascinated by diaries and faces, toys and tools of people who were once on this earth. Their artifacts are as holy to me as the cross or the baptistery. We live in a privileged era. Our relics will last a long time. Especially our words. They’ll last as long as the Internet, and that’s predicted to be as close to eternally as any man-made thing can be.
I wonder. Do the dead touch us back when we touch their relics? Maybe. Maybe the line between the living and the dead will disappear with enough technology, enough research . . . but we should never mistake a marvel for a miracle.
Jenean McBrearty has been published in Main Street Rag Anthology—Altered States, Wherever It Pleases, Danse Macabre, bioStories, Cobalt Review, and Black Lantern, among others. She has self-published two novels and a short story collection. She now resides in Kentucky. God has blessed her with wonderful children, a kitty named Mr. Baxter, and a navy blue Pontiac. Her website is: Jenean-McBrearty.com.
Since this blog will publish on my birthday, I decided to make some wishes with it. Yes, I am aware that wishes made public supposedly won’t come true. And yet, wishes kept captive in the inner-recesses of my addled mind go nowhere anyway, so I feel safe in putting a few out there. And yes, I am also aware that making my wish list public might be taken as a tad self-serving. That’s because it is. And I’m ok with that.
Wish #1 This year, my 38th if you must know, I really hope to be found by a story that makes me feel so inferior I am compelled to write it. This is not because I have an inflated opinion of myself and my abilities. Rather, I want desperately to be stunned into the process of telling an amazing story that, for some reason or other, has not been told. I am convinced that it is not an artistic duty that drives story as much as it is the incumbent need to bear witness to the invisible.
Wish #2 Re: Wish #1 – Because so many stories worth telling get ignored for ones we’ve heard too many times before, my second wish is that anyone who ends up reading this blog will also be confronted with a story they must tell. If it happens, I’m hoping the candle I blew out with your name on it compels you to find the keyboard rather than think “Someone should really write about that.”
Wish #3 Re: Wish #1&2 – Because the desire to write a story is the response we SHOULD automatically heed, my third wish is that all of us who commit these stories to prose actually seek their publication so we are not the only ones who get the opportunity to experience them. Instead, I wish for all of these stories to eventually be submitted to various publications (and no, this is not me shoe-horning in two wishes, Jafar). If you’re not sure where to send the story you write, spend some time here.
Wish #4 And for my final wish, a little selfishness on my part (as if taking one more wish than the customary three is not selfish enough). I wish that all our stories find homes, bear witness, and inspire others to stand in the path of stories that will force them, in turn, to be witnesses themselves.
So don’t let me down people. It is my birthday and all.
Michael Dean Clark is the fiction editor at Relief and an assistant professor of writing at Point Loma Nazarene University in San Diego, California. When he’s not writing or parenting via shame and sarcasm, Clark is waiting (im)patiently for the return of Psych, and you know that’s right.